New Bill to Mandate Captions for Web TV

Broadcasters could be forced to offer closed captions for any TV show they’re streaming online, if U.S. lawmakers have their way. A bill dubbed the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009 (H.R. 3101) just passed the House last week and got now introduced into the Senate.

The bill, which was authored by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), calls for broadcasters to caption any online programming that previously aired on TV. Video bloggers and smaller online studios don’t have to start transcribing each and every show any time soon, as online-only programming is exempt for now. However, broadcasters like Comedy Central could be forced to transcribe online-exclusive content if they’d ever come to a point where the majority of their programming is online-exclusive.

Broadcasters won’t have to scramble to include closed captioning overnight: The bill institutes a commission, which then needs to come up with an appropriate schedule for closed caption requirements. Still, it may force broadcasters to think about captions sooner rather than later, and Plymedia’s VP of business development Matt Knopf thinks that’s a good thing in and of itself. The vast majority of U.S. broadcasters and Web TV destinations don’t currently offer captions, Knopf told me during a phone call earlier this week, with and Hulu being some of the few exceptions to the rule.

However, Knopf believes that broadcasters actually have a lot to gain from using closed captions. “It’s not just about doing the right thing,” he said, even though providing a means of access for some 36 million deaf or hearing-impaired Americans certainly is a good reason in and of itself. However, captions also help to monetize online content, since transcripts make web video searchable, making them a natural SEO tool. He added that internal research has shown that videos with captions are viewed 38 percent longer than videos without.

Plymedia has been offering captions for three years now and counts the Wall Street Journal and Howcast amongst its customers. The company’s technology is integrated into Brightcove, Ooyala, Kit Digital and a number of other platforms. Plymedia also supports captions for live video, and Knopf told me that the company is using a network national court-report certified transcription experts to do so.

Plymedia isn’t the only company offering captioning services, but Knopf told me he actually views many offerings as complementary. YouTube (s GOOG), for example, began to automatically transcribe all of its videos in March, but the video site actually recommends Plymedia and others if you want more accuracy for your transcripts. The Participatory Culture Foundation recently unveiled a project to crowdsource the transcription of web videos.

Knopf believes that such efforts, combined with legislation like that which is in the house now, will lead to more and more video being available with subtitles. In the end, that’s also going to benefit those of us who are not hearing impaired, he said, pointing to recent report that the majority of online video is consumed in the office — a space where catching up on your favorite TV show has to be discrete at times. “We are the boss button for online video,” he said.

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